All it took was a semester abroad to convince Jane Buchanan ’96, that Russia was a place worth learning about, worth exploring, and maybe even worthy of a career. After graduating Summa Cum Laude as a Russian Language/Environmental Studies coordinate major, Buchanan wasted no time, relocating to Siberia where she lived for a year and a half, before enrolling in John Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2000. During her two years spent at SAIS, Buchanan discovered her interest in human rights through several internships focused on the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. After graduating, Buchanan was awarded a one-year Research Fellowship at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York, where she conducted two research trips to Ukraine, meeting with victims of various human rights abuses, as well as conducting interviews with various non-governmental organizations and local government officials. Upon returning to New York, Buchanan wrote two reports regarding political censorship in the media in Ukraine, and the discrimination of women in employment. Both reports have since been used to confront the Ukrainian government and encourage the UN, EU, and other influential parties to take action.
Although she eventually returned to HRW to assume her current research consultant position, Buchanan took time off in 2003 to focus her efforts on the country responsible for her initial interest in international study. For 20 months, she worked as the Executive Director of the Chechnya Justice Initiative, a small human rights organization in Moscow that provides legal assistance to victims of violent crimes committed by Russian federal forces operating in Chechnya. Thousands have been tortured, executed without trial, or disappeared altogether, receiving no protection from Russian law enforcement. In their efforts to expose the corruption of the Russian military, both clients and employees of the Justice Initiative were frequently harassed and even threatened by Russian security services.
Working in a field that presents these types of risks on a regular basis, Buchanan has developed the healthy perspective necessary towards maintaining both her enthusiasm and her sanity. “I have to control the workaholic in me…it’s really important to have a life beyond human rights and especially after long, intense research trips to take care of oneself.” But even so, Buchanan admits that there are times when the magnitude of certain issues becomes overwhelming. “The greatest challenge for me is living with the knowledge that there are still such entrenched problems and there is a limit as to how much impact one person or even one organization can have.”
Despite these challenges, Buchanan described her reward as “knowing that I am putting my energy into something meaningful, that should contribute to improving the lives of some individuals.” She remains hopeful that human rights interest will continue to grow, pointing to the evolution of the words themselves. “Human rights are now a fundamental concept; a household term that even twenty years ago didn’t have the same resonance that it does now.”
by Alix Roy ’07
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 77, No. 1, Fall 2005
Posted November 02, 2005